Day 8 began with another early morning and another early flight. We said goodbye to Aswan and headed back to Cairo where we were promptly picked up by our tour manager. T had heard that the City Stars Mall in Cairo supposedly had a Wagamama in its foodcourt and suggested that we stop by as it was not too far from the airport. Never one to pass up an opportunity to eat noodles, I happily went along with the plan.
We sent our baggage ahead with our driver to the hotel while we got off at the mall, looking forward to a day of good old commercial consumerism. Walking through the glass doors of City Stars, I felt as though I had instantly been transported to a Westfield mall in the states. We found our senses assaulted by floors upon floors of stores and brands we hadn't seen in over 6 months. From the rare Esprit to the most organized H&M I've ever been to, City Stars had it all... that is, except for the much coveted Wagamama. Disappointingly, not a single ramen noodle could be found so we settled for some tasty Lebanese cuisine at an unbeatable bargain price. We followed this with dessert at Paul Bakery, my new favorite place for sweet treats. I knew when my mint tea came with a tiny complimentary loaf of pound cake that this was going to be my kind of bakery. After too many minutes of gawking at the beautiful desserts and breads behind their glass counter, I finally settled on a fresh strawberry and vanilla dream of a pastry. I dove into it so completely that I didn't even think to take a picture until only the last bite was left.
Soon after lunch, we caught a cab to the hotel. After some finagling with our tour company, T was able to get our reservation changed from the Mena House to the Kempinski Hotel. After being herded around for nearly 4 days, he wanted to stay where we could more easily wander around on our own. As the Kempinski is located closer downtown and near a metro station, it seemed preferable to the isolated Mena House. I was skeptical at first, but when we first walked into the room, there was a personalized welcome message on the TV screen. From that moment I was over-the-moon smitten. Clearly it doesn't take much in the way of digital "special effects" to impress me but seriously, everything about the Kempinski was beautiful and comfortable. From the down-filled pillowtop mattress to the free and fast wifi, it exuded luxury and ease. The 10th floor restaurant offered the best breakfast buffet I've ever had with a side of stunning views of Cairo by the Nile. It's not the most affordable place by our standards, but if you're looking to splurge a little, I'd highly recommend the Kempinski Hotel.
Wanting to take advantage of our new location and a day free of tour guides, we ventured out for the Khan al-Khalili Souq where we hoped to find Abd El-Zaher, Cairo's last working bookbinder. From the hotel we walked along the river then turned into the now famous Tahrir Square. Bustling and alive with merchants, it was hard to imagine that the square was so recently the site of a major revolution... that was until we spied the burnt out cars and charred remains of one of Mubarak's government buildings. After some uncertainty, we finally arrived at a metro station, where our carefully formulated plans quickly began to become snarled. Looking at the subway map, we learned that the station we were hoping to go to was closed. Nevertheless, we continued to venture on and decided to get off at a neighboring stop. From there we tried to take a cab to the market only to be refused by our driver who recommended that we walk. And so we walked... and walked... and walked through the greatest mass of humanity I have ever seen. As none of the streets were labeled we found ourselves having to ask directions but as most of the people we met spoke limited English, I could gain little confidence that we were ever going to reach our destination... or even back to the hotel.
Darkness began to settle and we found ourselves wandering through narrow alleyways behind what we hoped was Al-Azhar Mosque. Then, just when we were about to give up, we stumbled upon the warmly lit storefront of Abd El Zaher almost as if by accident. From the moment we read about this store in our guidebook, T and I knew we wanted to find this place... but nothing could have prepared me for how wonderful it was to be there in person. On either side of us were walls lined with bookshelves filled with leather bound notebooks of every possible size, color, and design. We quickly forgot about our tired feet and frazzled nerves as we mined the shelves for treasure... especially when we learned how heartbreakingly affordable they were. I rounded a corner to an adjoining room and was met with a workbench holding more beautifully bound books and tools for gold monogramming. When I learned that we could get our initials branded on any of our books for no extra cost, I was beside myself with disbelief.
After what I'm sure were hours, T and I finally narrowed our choices down to a couple handfuls of books and began to pick out the fonts and initials for each book. We were also allowed a small filigree design of our choice. Then we watched each of our books get branded. Holding our breath, we were both so captivated, as if watching a magician performing a lost art.
With hunger settling in, we tore ourselves away from the store and faced the question of how to get back to the hotel. As traffic was in complete deadlock, we decided to take a snack at the souq while waiting for traffic to clear up. Nothing like some mint tea, mushroom and cheese fateer (Egyptian pizza), and a sheesha (hookah) to take the edge off of a long adventurous day!